We’ve ordered excellent take-out from fancy-pants places like Chicago’s Travelle and Oak Park’s Citrine this summer, as well as from street-level joints like Pizza Friendly Pizza. We did not walk in the front door of any of these places, preferring to have our food dropped into the trunk curbside or handed to us through a carryout window.
Then, as summer ended, we went out to eat at a restaurant.
We had misgivings and took heavy flak from hyper-cautious family members, but in the end, we decided to have dinner at Le Sud in Roscoe Village.
Entering Le Sud, we had our temperature taken with a no-contact thermometer gun. This is new, and a worthy effort in these times and beyond. I posted months ago on LTH Forum, the Chicago-based culinary chat site, that I’d like to see temperatures taken at restaurants, and one poster, among several, angrily responded, asking “How are you going to feel about some bandana-wearing store employee whose hygiene you know nothing about shoving a thermometer in your face?”
The nice (and quite clean) young man who took our temperatures at Le Sud wore a mask, and the process took less than five seconds, so concerns about unhygienic store employees “shoving a thermometer in your face” are unfounded, at least at Le Sud. I still contend that temperature-taking is a good idea, even post-pandemic.
In keeping with the new regulations, everybody seated on the outdoor patio (there was no indoor seating) had to be masked, as did servers, and diners needed to be masked while speaking to servers. We kept ours hanging around our necks while we ate and drank, pulling up our masks whenever our server came by to serve or converse. I spotted only one diner In a patio of maybe thirty guests who decided this new rule didn’t apply to her. (It’s possible that this older woman had a medical condition that made mask-wearing ill-advised.)
At the restaurants we’ve visited recently, whether for carryout or dine-in, the menu seems aimed to hit diners squarely in the comfort zone, and comfort is just what many of us are looking for right now.
Earlier this year, we chatted with Erick Williams of Hyde Park’s Virtue about his to-go cocktail program, and he told us that Virtue serves to-go cocktails that don’t “go too far outside the box. At times like these, for our demographic. There’s less appeal in unfamiliar things. If you look at the meal kits some of us are putting out, many include comfort food, prepared using a recognizable technique.”
In a similar effort to hit the right note of familiarity and comfort, Alinea—now Chicago’s only Michelin three-star—offers to-go meals that may include a piece of beef or macaroni and cheese rather than extravagant offerings with herbs and spices you’ve never heard of, prepared with technologies that didn’t exist a decade ago. Right now, avant-garde cuisine is not what most customers want.
The desire for the familiar is reflected in other parts of the consumer economy. Take the famously out-of-stock name-brand antibacterial wipes by Clorox and Lysol. There are other wipes on the market that also claim to eliminate ninety-nine-point-nine percent of bacteria on surfaces, but customers want what they know, and they know Clorox and Lysol, so those are the brands people cleave to. There’s comfort in the well-known brand name, the familiar, in even the best of times; in the worst of times, they are what we want.
At restaurants now, when diners at other tables could pose a serious health threat, people want comfort. Wearing a mask is not comfortable, but when it comes to food on the plate, people want to be comforted. At Le Sud, our favorite dish of the evening was the veal cheeks, a hearty, flavorful stew and yet so simple it is well within the skills of most home cooks. Like all classic comfort food, the veal cheeks were simple and familiar, just what this diner is looking for now.
Sandy Chen, who owns and operates Le Sud as well as Koi in Evanston, told us that she plans on warming her patio with heat lamps during cooler months, and other restaurants are likely to do the same. We know some other restaurants intend to enclose their formerly outdoor spaces with roofing and maybe plastic walls… But is a space enclosed with plastic any safer than a space enclosed with regular walls? Perhaps, or maybe we’re getting too comfortable.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org